The Creative Theology of J.R.R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien towers over most of the literary giants of the past century, not only in the enduring popularity of his work around the world, but also in the depth of impact and inspiration his work has had on millions of readers, writers, and creators (1), inspiring not only books and films, but games both electronic and tabletop, artists, poets, and even political activists. The Lord of the Rings, in particular, is the standard by which new attempts at ‘world-building,’ at inventing and describing a convincing and alluring fantasy world, are almost invariably judged. Such a legacy is beginning to attract attention beyond pure imitation: Tolkien's literary approach, and in particular the roots of his astounding creativity, seem set to be a fertile field of literary analysis for years to come.
Tolkien's own comments on creativity are relatively sparse, but his influential essay "On Fairy Stories" offers some revealing insights as a starting point. In particular, Tolkien writes here of how the most popular and successful stories are those that reflect, resemble, and resonate with the Primary Myth; the foundational story of human nature, existence, and destiny, for him articulated ultimately in the Christian Gospels. Good fiction replicates the shape of that primary story: creation, fall, eucatastrophe (a sudden turn from bad to good), restoration. In other words, good creativity echoes and recalls the fundamental patterns of the human story, drawing out and making visible the shape of our reality. In the metaphor of Plato's cave, good stories crystalise and parade (perhaps, at least in the case of mythopoeia, in clearer and more obvious form) those forms whose shifting shadows dance in bewildering blurs across the wall of our mundane experience (2).
He articulated something similar when, in his longer introduction to the later editions of The Lord of the Rings, he insisted that the story was not allegorical: “I cordially detest allegory in all of its many forms […] I much prefer applicability.” An applicable story is one that reflects reality so well that it can be connected instructively to our experience of reality; in other words, it resonates with our everyday experience in much the same way as a 'good' myth resonates with the deep unseen truths of our existence. It is part of the power of The Lord of the Rings that it ‘applies’ at so many issues, resonating with existential questions and the human wrestling with issues of fate, beauty, death, and transcendence whilst also resonating with the gritty details of every day experience as it describes cooking a rabbit or suffering from the onset of hypothermia. Realism, not necessarily in the modern ‘gritty’ sense, but in the deeper sense of drawing out and engaging with the themes of our existence, mundane and sublime, is the hallmark of a ‘good’ piece of fiction. The roots of creativity (to use a tree metaphor that would doubtless have appealed to the firmly dendrophilic Tolkien) are planted in the soil of reality: a good story, in his conception, will be one that extracts, rarefies, and manifests the patterns and truths of human existence.
This means that looking at how Tolkien portrays creativity within his stories is a powerful window into his own understanding of the creative enterprise, since those stories are to resonate with our reality at both the mythic and mundane levels. This is crucial, because creativity is something Tolkien often discusses in his imaginative fiction, from the quaint mundanity (seemingly) of Leaf by Niggle to the splendour of the Silmarillion. Books could no doubt be penned on the subject, but some initial themes emerge.
Firstly creativity in Tolkien is essentially delegated. While initial versions of his Middle Earth mythos had little mention of an original creator, Tolkien's Christian faith increasingly asserted itself over his scholarly roots in pagan mythology, and ultimately gave us the beautiful first chapter of the Silmarillion: the Music of the Ainur. In this account the creator (Eru/Illuvatar/God) formed first powerful spirits called Ainur, who performed before Him as a sort of heavenly orchestra which he lead in a great and powerful music. The Ainur made music, and indeed some of the greatest had roles in leading sections of the music and elaborating on and developing His themes, but the score was His and He reigned supreme as conductor. Eru then spoke this music into being, creating a physical reality and inviting the Ainur to go down into it and shape it according to the music they had played together. They went, and began forming the matter He had made in a way that reflected the shape of His music. Some shaped it in one way, some another according to their own gifts and interests, but they shaped the materials He had given them, with the gifts He had given them, according to the plan He had given them, raising mountains and skies and seas in the earth He formed. The creativity of creatures is real, but delegated. Elsewhere, Tolkien would use the platonic concept of the 'demiurge' to describe the creativity of the Ainur: standing between the fount of everything and the material world, they create the details of his creation, like stonemasons decorating the arches of a cathedral the architect has designed (3). Elves and men then inhabit and fill in the details of the Ainur's creation, just as they do Eru's, adding their own colouring to the grand shapes they have inherited. All of it is fulfilling the ultimate goal of creating the beauty envisaged in that great Music at the start of creation, with each creature adding their own pieces to the whole and the great conductor working their notes into harmony with the whole sweep of the symphony. Every creature thus has a creative role to play in the continuing work of creation, developing the vision of the great Creator with a creativity rooted in Him.
This leads to an inevitable corollary: evil is ultimately creatively sterile. The villain figure in Tolkien is Melkor, one of the greatest of the Ainur who rebels against this role as delegated-creator or demiurge, and seeks to make his own music, but all he can come up with is bare noise, braying horns and clashing cymbols. So when he enters the material world, Melkor cannot really create anything new: he takes heat and cold and makes them damagingly extreme, but he cannot create his own things. This is most evident in the ultimate act of creativity: creating independent life. Eru creates Elves and Men, His 'children', to inhabit the world and people its stage, and take up a demiurgic role under the Ainur, tending and further ornamenting the creation they shape. Melkor can only take Men and Elves and twist them into mockeries of Eru's creation: Orcs, and later trolls and other creatures. Hence Frodo's comment to Sam that Sauron cannot create anything new, only distort and destroy. Because it is self-centred, rooted in a desire to 'do it my way,' evil is ironically unable to create its own legacy, and is forced to steal and distort the work of others. There are two parts to this; at a certain level, it is simply a practical outworking of its selfish nature: to be creative is to serve the creation, to do one's bit to colour in a wider plan, it requires losing oneself in something bigger and looking at something outside oneself, even if only what one is creating. But because pride and self-obsession are the root (in Tolkien's world) of evil, they block any truly original innovation; to create something new is by definition to make something other than oneself, but to be obsessed with oneself is to lose the ability to create something truly new and other to oneself. To be evil is to be selfish, to be selfish is to be self-obsessed, to be self-obsessed is to have eyes and energy only for oneself, and so to be blind and empty when it comes to creating something other.
If this is the practical side, there is also a metaphysical side; and that is that creativity, being delegated from Eru, requires at some level connection to him or a willingness to play in his orchestra. Creativity is colouring in the details of His work of creation, and so being in rebellion against Him poisons the well of creativity. Ignoring the conductor is not the route to playing good music. Evil, being cut off from the fount of creativity, refusing to accept delegated creativity, is sterile.
These two themes come together in the third element: when delegated creativity is dedicated to the One it comes from, it becomes inspired. One of the most poignant tales in the Silmarillion is that of Aulë and the creation of the Dwarfs (4). Aulë, the Ainur associated with craftsmanship and mechanical creativity, was so delighted with the idea of Eru's children that he decided to make some of his own, and created what would become the dwarfs. But the moment he finished them he heard the voice of Eru asking:
Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy heart and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and when thy thought is elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?
Aulë cannot create creatures with free will, since that is beyond his (delegated) creative authority. Recognising his pride and hubris in seeking to produce his own children in rivalry to Eru, Aulë repented, saying:
[...] in my impatience I have fallen into folly [...] As a child to his father I offer you these things, the work of the hands that thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?
and he took up his great hammer to smash the creatures he had made. But the moment he did so they cried out and cowered, and Eru spoke, saying:
Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?
Thus Aulë's creatures, the Dwarves, became the true independent creation he could never have made by himself. Aulë's creativity reaches its full potential when he dedicates it to Eru, and Eru literally inspires (5) it, making it something he could never have made on his own. Creativity that is dedicated to its Source is blessed beyond its own capabilities.
The converse is frequently evident in the story of Melkor: whenever he seeks to ruin Eru's design he ends up being incorporated into his music to make new beauties. Thus his extremes of heat and cold bring about the beauties of ice and frost and snow, steam and gems and forged gold. Even in the first music, his loud discordant noises are taken and blended into the music to make something new (6). Those who dedicate their creativity to the Creator find it inspired and carried to new heights. Those who seek to anti-create, to disrupt His plans, find they end up serving them all the same. The design of the creator will go ahead, and each creature will serve, their choice is how they will do so: as servants adding their own story to it, or as foils whose folly is woven into it.
In many ways these themes are 'grounded' back into the familiarities of this life by Tolkien's intriguing little story "Leaf by Niggle." In it an ordinary, ineffectual little man sets out to paint a tree, but only ever really gets round to painting one leaf properly. It is a pretty good painting of a leaf, and he spends all his time on it, so much so that he neglects to prepare for a journey he must take and so arrives at his destination without what he needs (an image of dying unprepared and facing judgement). All he has to offer is his painting. Niggle is spared serious punishment, however, because of the work he has done with his painting of the leaf, and instead is sent to create the whole tree of his painting for real in the forests at the foot of the mountains (an image of heaven/the beatific vision). The tree prepares pilgrims for the mountains, and in time Niggle has completed it and is ready to move on up himself. The story is rich in symbolism rooted in Tolkien's devout Roman Catholicism, but it's depiction of creativity is particularly significant. Niggle's creation is wholly inadequate compared to his vision, and yet he cannot quite let it go (a 'niggle' is an archaic English term for something that one cannot quite put out of one's mind, that constantly intrudes on one's thoughts). His deeply flawed and incomplete creation is taken and turned into full reality in heaven, and becomes a way to help others towards bliss. Even the most inadequate creativity, when it is pursued and dedicated to the One who inspires it, becomes something transcendent, beautiful, and powerful for good. The story reads, indeed, as if there is an element of autobiography in it, however astounding to the modern reader that Tolkien should have rated his own work so low, it speaks to his humility in recognising the imperfection even of his magnificent creation and the need to offer it to its Source and seek His inspiration.
Tolkien's conception of creativity, then, is rooted in its ability to evoke and crystallise the patterns and shapes of our existence: whether small and practical or transcendent and spiritual. Such creativity is a delegated gift, with which the recipient is called to participate in the great work of filling and shaping creation, a work that is ultimately divine, but carried out through His servants. When a creature breaks away from this purpose and source their creativity withers and becomes a sterile twisting of others' work, but when, even after being used presumptuously or lazily, it is humbly surrendered to the ultimate Creator, He breathes into it a power and value and greatness it could never have had alone.
(1) Voted 'book of the millenium' by Amazon readers in 1999, the Lord of the Rings has also topped national polls in Britain, Australia, and even Germany even fifty years after publication, and has sold over 150 million copies worldwide in dozens of languages.
(2) Plato's Cave is a thought experiment that envisages a group of prisoners chained in an underground cavern, only able to look straight ahead at the rock wall in front of them. Behind them a fire burns, and between its flickering flames and them pass certain perfect shapes, whose form the prisoners can only guess at from the blurring and wavering shadows that dance across the wall they see.
(3) Discussed in Christoper Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, (London, Harper Collins, 1993). The demiurge, in platonic thought, stood between the ultimate and transcendent being ('the Good') and material creation, acting in a mediatory role to shape base matter in a way that reflected the Good.
(4) J. R. R. Tolkien, the Silmarillion (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1977), pp. 43-44.
(5) 'Inspire' is a word coming from the Latin for breathing into something.
(6) Silmarillion, p. 17.