Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, by Becca Tarnas. Published by Revelore Press.
I wish first to explore J. R. R. Tolkien’s own understanding of his creative process. Tolkien developed a theory of imagination that he called “Sub-creation” as a way to understand the origin and creation of his stories, which he explicated in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien defines “Imagination” as “the faculty of conceiving images,” and “the mental power of image-making.”1 Yet he points out that over time the term “Imagination” has come to mean something more than the faculty of image-making. The term carries a greater potency: “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”2 Tolkien is alluding to the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his discussion of the primary and secondary imagination as expressed in Coleridge’s book Biographia Literaria. Coleridge delineates the primary imagination from the secondary imagination as a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind.
Coleridge defined the primary imagination as follows: “The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”3 Coleridge is saying that the primary imagination creates the world we perceive, and shapes our very perception of it. The primary imagination gives to “ideal creations the inner consistency of reality,” as Tolkien puts it. The primary imagination is the source of all images, the wellspring of creativity.
In Biographia Literaria Coleridge also delineates the secondary imagination, which he considers to be an “echo” of the primary imagination. Coleridge says that the secondary imagination is “co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate.”4 The secondary imagination is the creative will of the human being, which takes the primary source of images and shapes it into art, bringing forth new form. Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation echoes Coleridge’s definitions of the primary and secondary imagination, although it is important to note that Tolkien chooses different terms for his concepts. Sub-creation is essentially a process in two primary stages: the experience of images arising through the “Imagination,” and then the “Art” of shaping those images into the final result. Tolkien calls the final result “Sub-creative Art.”5 The two stages are “Imagination” and then “Art,” and the result is a “Sub-creation.” Yet Tolkien wanted another word that could simultaneously encompass this “Sub-creative Art” and also what he called that “quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image.”6 For this word, a word that could encompass all those qualities, Tolkien chose the term “Fantasy.”7
The word “Fantasy” has a wide range of meanings for Tolkien. From his perspective, Fantasy is “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds.”8 Fantasy is both an activity and the result of that activity. Fantasy is the capacity to create, but also to perceive, an otherworld; and it encompasses the full sensory experience of that otherworld. As Tolkien writes: “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.”9 Tolkien is careful to differentiate fantasy from dreaming, and to distinguish it also from delusion, hallucination, and mental disorders: “Fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity.”10 Fantasy requires conscious engagement and control by means of the human will. And, as I mentioned previously, fantasy is also the word Tolkien chose to encompass what he meant by “Sub-creative Art.” Thus “Fantasy” is a noun, an adjective, and a verb in Tolkien’s vocabulary, and encompasses the full experience of “making or glimpsing Other-worlds.”
According to Tolkien, a successful sub-creator “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.”11 Tolkien calls this occurrence “Secondary Belief.”12 Secondary belief is what we experience when we read a great story, a story such as The Lord of the Rings. We are able to enter into the world of Middle-earth. When one enters a secondary world, and the inner laws of that world are consistent, it feels as though one is truly in that place, seeing the landscapes, hearing the people speaking and interacting with one another, and witnessing events unfold through one’s internal sensory perceptions. A true secondary world echoes the primary world in its expression of reality.
From Tolkien’s perspective, there is yet another level of secondary belief. When secondary belief reaches its most actualized form, then one experiences “Enchantment.” Tolkien writes: “Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose.”13 Enchantment allows one to be fully immersed in a secondary world, beyond any doubt in its reality. Enchantment is what Frodo experiences in the first chapter of Book II, in the Hall of Fire when he hears the Elvish music and visions begin to unfold before him.14 He knows the story being told even though he does not understand all the Elvish words. That is an experience of enchantment, or what Tolkien also at times calls a Faërian Drama.15
Tolkien only uses the term Faërian Drama in a few places, in the essay “On Fairy-Stories” and in his unfinished tale The Notion Club Papers that he wrote in the early 1940s. But the term seems to indicate a kind of visionary experience, or what Tolkien would call a “waking dream.”16 Tolkien is elusive in the way that he speaks about Faërian Drama and Elvish Enchantment, never quite committing to saying this is something that can occur in the real world. Tolkien presents Faërian Drama as a real experience, but he speaks of Elves and the realm of Faërie in a dual and even contradictory way, sometimes as though Elves are real and Faërie an actual place, other times as though they are merely the invention of the human imagination, existing only in a realm of unreality.17 In a few different essays and commentaries, the scholar Verlyn Flieger has engaged with Tolkien’s most contradictory and paradoxical statements in “On Fairy-Stories,” drawing not only on his published text, but on the earlier manuscript drafts of the essay as well. Flieger notes: “Anticipating a skeptical reception, Tolkien tries in the essay as in his letters to have it both ways, on the one hand treating elves as real beings independent of humanity, and on the other hand saying that they are products of human imagination.”18 He is never clear where he stands, expressing the ambiguity of his position in the modern era. In the modernity of Tolkien’s time, secular disenchantment and religious tradition stood as pillars of a world view undergoing deep transformation.
Tolkien uses the term “Sub-creation” because, as a devout Catholic, Tolkien saw himself and other artists and authors as creators under God. Such artists are not the instigators of primary Creation, but rather instruments through whom the divine imagination can be channeled and shaped. Tolkien illustrates this idea in a series of lines from his poem Mythopoeia:
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.19
The human being is able to refract and reshape the divine inspiration into art and creative works, which then continue to refract as others participate in that art. Our reading of The Lord of the Rings, and our experience of seeing the images that arise when we engage in the story, are such a creative participation. We are each prisms, shaping the light of God into an iridescent infinity of sub-creations. Yet those sub-creations also contain within them the primal creative white light of God, the source of the primary imagination.
Tolkien said that literature might be the best medium for sub-creation because of its ability to evoke images directly from the imagination of the reader. The written or spoken word can communicate a universal and a particular simultaneously.20 The word is both concrete and fluid, and leaps from imagination to imagination. As Tolkien eloquently explicates:
Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. . . . If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.21
One can hear the archetypal to which Tolkien is speaking in this passage: The Hill, The River, The Valley are all capitalized in that final sentence. The written word is able to communicate not only the particular images as they arise in the imagination of the author, but it also connects to the universal or the archetype behind that unique image. The image communicated thus has both a quality of being ancient or even eternal, but also of being newly made or perceived in that moment.