6 Things Tolkien Meant by Subcreation – Pt 1

This is the first in a series of posts on the concept of “subcreation.” You can find the other post in this series here under Tolkien’s Creative Wisdom.

What did Tolkien mean by “subcreation?” In his 1938 lecture On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien coined the term “subcreation” to define his creative approach. It is a concept at the heart of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. However, it can be a confusing concept, so I thought it would be helpful to spend the next few posts discussing it.

Ever since hearing about Tolkien’s concept of subcreation, I have been absolutely fascinated by it. It is a key to understanding what Tolkien was doing in his Middle-earth works, and it really gets to the heart of what he believes human beings are put on earth to do. Here are some key points that will help you wrap your head around what Tolkien meant by “subcreation.”

1. Subcreation Is Not Allegory

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” (Carpenter 193). As I came to find in writing my Master’s thesis, the process of understanding Tolkien’s literary views really begins with understanding his disdain for allegory. An allegory is a story told with the express purpose of representing some other thing. A famous example is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory for the journey of the Christian through this life to heaven. In that particular tale, for all of its merits, it is quite evident that Bunyan was writing not to create a story that seemed real but to instruct his readers about the way they should live their lives. Tolkien was not interested in this sort of symbolic storytelling.

2. Subcreation Seeks Secondary Belief

In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien speaks frequently of the notion of “secondary belief,” juxtaposing it against the “willing suspension of disbelief” that he felt was indicative of lesser art forms. Whereas the suspension of disbelief is a condescending action, something we do when a work of art has failed to captivate us, secondary belief is the result of a work of art that engenders such enchantment that our imaginations take over. For Tolkien, engendering this “secondary belief” required the creation of a world of such depth that it really did seem as though it was a world all its own.

3. Subcreation Seeks to Enrich Creation

In one of my favorite Tolkien quotes, he speaks of the work of subcreation as “the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (Tree and Leaf 73). In other words, the work of subcreation is less like “making something from scratch” as it is like the gardener putting form to some plant or flower that has grown wild. In The Silmarillion, Ilúvatar first creates the Ainur in order to continue the work of creation begun by him and to give it full fruition. He briefly gives them a vision of what the world might be, and then sends them into the world as the Valar in order to begin “their great labors in wastes unmeasured and unexplored” (The Silmarillion 20). As it was the role of the Valar to work to achieve the foreshadowing vision they had been briefly granted by Ilúvatar, so it seems that Tolkien believes our role as subcreators is to develop a thing into its fullness.

I’m convinced that Tolkien’s idea of subcreation has remarkable things to say about the way we make art of every type.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts on this post in the comments below.

  3 comments for “6 Things Tolkien Meant by Subcreation – Pt 1

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds
    October 1, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you for this (including Part 2)! It would be great to read your whole Master’s thesis someday!

    I gave a paper at the first ‘Northern’ Tolkien conference (that is, the first one in the ‘Northern’ world of Scandinavia and Finland) way back in May 1992, entitled, “Technology and Sub-creation: Tolkien’s Alternative to the Dominant Worldview”. It was published by Turku University in 1993 together with 14 other conference papers in Scholarship & Fantasy (which is No. 12 of Anglicana Turkuensia – and which I think can still be ordered from the University).

    And earlier this year, I have had the pleasure and privilege of discussing Tolkien online with Father Angelo Mary Geiger and other commenters on his blog, Mary Victrix. On 10 February he had a post, “Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic?” and on 21 July a post, “Tolkien and Modernity, Part I”. I have certainly been brought further in my thinking about Tolkien by those discussions – and you and your readers might like to have a look, too.

    • tolkiencatholic
      October 1, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Thank you! I hope to clean up my thesis soon and present it to the general public. So stay tuned on that!

      I am just beginning to crack the surface of the incredible Tolkien academic sub-culture. I know it is vast, so I have a lot of reading to do. But I am truly looking forward to it!

      And thank you for the recommendation on Fr. Geiger’s blog. It looks like a great site!

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