Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien

Yesterday I found myself reading The Silmarillion, an unfinished collection of Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings depicting the creation of Ëa and its passage through the first of the three ages of the world (The Lord of the Rings trilogy depicts events at the end of the third age). The stories, posthumously published by his son Christopher in 1977, are prefaced by a letter sent by Tolkien to the editor Milton Waldman in 1951 in the hopes that he would agree to publish The Lord of the Rings. “My dear Milton,” began Tolkien, 

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. (xi)

Silmarillion-cover

Despite the brilliant summary provided in the letter, dear Milton decided that, due to the medley of mythic “stuff” woven into Tolkien’s trilogy, it was, after all, too long and “urgently wanted cutting.” LoTR was of course published several years later, in full, and has by now sold more than 150 million copies.

Despite my several year long research focus on the power of imagination, I’ve only very recently begun exploring Tolkien’s work. I completed my first reading of his trilogy just a few months ago with my partner Becca (check out her blog). Her graduate work also orbits around Imagination, with a particular focus on Tolkien’s relevance to the task of articulating an enchanted ecology. After a bit of effort, she has succeeded in awakening me to Tolkien’s genius and to the archetypal vitality of Middle-Earth (thanks, Becca!).

I’m fascinated both by the Art Tolkien sub-created, and by the creative process through which it was brought to term.

“In order of time, growth and composition,” wrote Tolkien to Waldman, “this stuff began with me.”

“This stuff”? Is this Tolkien’s choice of words, or is he echoing Waldman from a prior letter? Do I detect a soft hint of sarcasm in Tolkien’s tone as he responds to Waldman’s patronizing request for a résumé of his “make-believe” world? Judging from Waldman’s refusal to publish the trilogy, I get the sense that he lacked the historical sensitivity to recognize the significance of what had happened to Tolkien, as well as the imaginal organ required to participate in the world Tolkien had brought forth.

“This stuff began with me,” he wrote. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi). The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never something external to or separate from his real life identity. His very sense of himself was coëval with his sense of the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one, at least in Imagination (though I challenge you to point out anything that isn’t). From Tolkien’s point of view, Art is not simply the vocation of a few artists. Art, or sub-creation, is a universal human calling. Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human, as Pico della Mirandola taught us, is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe like that envisioned by the organ of Imagination, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become a subcreator.

The subtending power of Imagination over human life and death is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and pure physical reality. It’s that, for better or worse, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul. To be sub-creators is our doom, whether we use our power to create beauty or to destroy it. 

Reality is never pure: it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of processes. Every supposedly simple and complete reality is just a self-created image, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to ressentiment of the world’s becoming (see William Connolly’s A World of Becoming, 2011). Ressentiment or re-enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; that latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the proces of being told.

The chief import of Tolkien’s Art, as I understand it, is that its example invites us to step into our own roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when so much seems headed for disaster.

Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” He continues: “…always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing'” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is then just as easily characterized as a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/senses, spirt/matter, etc). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.

There is also a spiritual side to the strange logic underlying Tolkien’s sub-creative vocation. He says of all his “stuff” that it is “fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality” (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of solid matter, but of story and myth), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself at strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.

The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with what Tolkien calls “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will more quickly effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.

The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of our own. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part, though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.

There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)

In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.

“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,

is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. (xiv)

“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,

is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.

From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. They envy us because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, it seems, is the highest of the Arts. Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…

“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)

Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination. As such it depends upon a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing. 

The same sort of imaginal faith is required to appreciate the moral of Tolkien’s cosmogony. I realize that here I risk another allegorical interpretation despite Tolkien’s “cordial dislike” of allegory. But even Tolkien admitted that “any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language,” and that “the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations” (xiii). Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:

…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to

interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. (16)

Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from a good root. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur after going off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s notes into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.

“Might are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,

and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. (17)

The moral, then? It seems simple enough: trust the creative process, even when its path seems dark, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world. Embrace mortal sub-creation without ressentiment for the task. Realize that death only appears to the fallen ego as an enemy. To the redeemed Imagination, death is revealed as God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.

“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,'” wrote Tolkien,

are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. (xvii)

*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

The Power of Adjectives: Two Poems on Imagination by Patrick Lane and P. K. Page

“Albino Pheasants” (1977) by Patrick Lane 

At the bottom of the field
where thistles throw their seeds
and poplars grow from cotton into trees
in a single season I stand among the weeds.
Fenceposts hold each other up with sagging wire.
Here no man walks except in wasted time.
Men circle me with cattle, cars and wheat.
Machines rot on my margins.
They say the land is wasted when it’s wild
and offer plows and apple trees to tame
but in the fall when I have driven them away
with their guns and dogs and dreams
I walk alone. While those who’d kill
lie sleeping in soft beds
huddled against the bodies of their wives
I go with speargrass and hooked burrs
and wait upon the ice alone.

Delicate across the mesh of snow
I watch the pale birds come
with beaks the colour of discarded flesh.
White, their feathers are white,
as if they had been born in caves
and only now have risen to the earth
to watch with pink and darting eyes
the slowly moving shadows of the moon.
There is no way to tell men what to do…
the dance they make in sleep
withholds its meaning from their dreams.
That which has been nursed in bone
rests easy upon frozen stone
and what is wild is lost behind closed eyes:
albino birds, pale sisters, succubi.

Sestina for Pat Lane After Reading ‘Albino Pheasants’  (1978) by  P. K. Page 

Pale beak…pale eye…the dark imagination
flares like magnesium. And but, pale flesh
and I am lifted to a weightless world:
watered cerulean, chrome-yellow, light
and green, veronese – if I remember – a soft wash
recalls a summer evening sky.

At Barro de Navidad we watched the sky
fade softly like a bruise. Was it imagination
that showed us Venus phosphorescent in a wash
of air and ozone? – a phosphorescence flesh
wears like a mantle in bright moonlight,
a natural skin-tone in that other world.

Why do I wish to escape this world?
Why do three phrases alter the color of the sky
the clarity, texture even, of light?
What is there about the irrepressible imagination
that the adjective pale modifying beak, eye and flesh,
can set my sensibilities awash?

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagintion
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet. If I were to wash
everything I own in mercury, would imagination
run rampant in that suddenly silver world –
free me from gravity, set me floating sky-
ward – thistledown – permanently disburdened of my flesh?

Like cygnets hatched by ducks, our minds and flesh
are imprinted early – what to me is light
may be dark to one born under a sunny sky.
And however cool the water my truth won’t wash
without shrinking except in my own world
which is one part matter, nine parts imagination.

I fear flesh which blocks imagination,
the light of reason which contracts the world.
Pale beak…pale eye…pale flesh…My sky’s awash.

———————————————————————————————————

I’m particularly fascinated by the role of adjectives in these poems, a role explicitly thematized by Page (“what is it about the irrepressible imagination that the adjective…can set my sensibilities awash?”). J. R. R. Tolkein, a philologist as well as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, discusses the liberating power of adjectives in his short essay, “On Fairy Stories,” from which I will quote at length. Speaking of mythology, after declaring that “Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret,” since truly it is “modern European languages [that] are a disease of mythology”, Tolkein writes:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

As Page and Tolkein both attempt to articulate, the human imagination makes us potential sub-creators – participants in the ongoing poetry of creation. The magic of our incarnate minds is borne principally through language, which skillfully crafted, can shift not only our thoughts about the world, but our very perception of the world. An imaginative phrase can “change the waves or particles of light” not of some other fantasized world, but of this world.

I’m reminded again, in connection with the creative power of adjectives, of Alfred North Whitehead‘s eternal objects. In human beings, whose mental capacities “rise to the peak of free imagination” (Process and Reality, 161), adjectives like green or pale allow us to bring forth novel perceptual worlds not determined by past actualities. See HERE, HERE, and HERE for some of my other recent reflections on eternal objects.