Tolkien’s Crucible of Faith: The Sub-Creation

by John H. Timmerman

John H. Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 5. 1974, pp. 608-611. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


By simplicity of diction, appropriate naming, skill in evoking mood and emphasis upon concerns which affect every human being, Tolkien has created an accessible world that both invites and directs us.

On bright days, when I was a child, I dreamed summer clouds into shapes of wonder. The clouds became my own being, and depending on my disposition I peopled my sky with elves or ogres, birds or beasts. Now no longer a child, I know that clouds are of various types -- cirrus, cumulus, cirrocumulus, cirrocumulus castellanus -- and that they portend rain or merely reflect the summer-day idleness that I have no time for. And something has been lost from my being for this gain of knowledge.

"A child," says J. R. R. Tolkien in his piece "On Fairy-Stories," "may well believe . . . that there are ogres in the next country; many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country" (Tree and Leaf [Houghton Muffin, 1965], p. 39). I have come to realize that my discovery about clouds is old hat, that many others made the same discovery years and centuries ago. And some of them have lamented it more eloquently than I can. Friedrich Schiller, seeking to recapture the naïveté and innocence of youth, admitted sadly that they were unattainable for the adult. He saw that, as it staggered, heavy and uncertain, into the adult realization of a mechanical universal order, a world ruled by Process, childhood was the first and last gasp of romanticism. Thomas Hardy grimly attests: "As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the center of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering. . . . All around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and warped it" (Jude the Obscure [Houghton Muffin, 1965], p. 17).

I learned, as Hardy did, that the world badly wanted me to grow up. And to grow up is to strip yourself of gauzy clouds of wonder and put on heavier garb -- woolens and cottons that protect you from winter’s cold or summer’s heat. Like Goya, we have found it necessary to clothe Venus and to call her by other names, such as Maya. In Vedantic philosophy, Maya is the way of illusion -- the illusion of the reality of sensory experience, and also (or consequently) the illusion of the experienced, sensory qualities of the self. So the beauty of wonder is now named Illusion.

Allow me once more to recall my past. When I was young I was a greedy lover of books. When I was eight my father, a busy and important man who nonetheless made time to be important to his four children, took me to the library and drew out a library card for me. I was by no means a precocious reader, no Jonathan Edwards who at 12 could read Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and understand it. My book world was peopled by adventurers, explorers, fantasists. My father is fond of saying that when one is young the line between fact and fiction is as thin as paper.

Dickens and Schiller on Children

Among my earliest serious undertakings were the novels of Charles Dickens. I often wondered why Dickens put so many orphans into his stories, as if half the world were lonely and outcast. Now that my faith wears adult garb, I realize that not half the world but every person in it is at one time or another an orphan, lost and lonely and wandering. Dickens’s children endure even in our age of television. In the back reaches of my mind I often encounter Little Dorritt, Little Nell, Pip, Little Em’ly; I hear Little Jo of Bleak House repeating the Lord’s Prayer as he lies dying; and I see David Copperfield walking anxiously up the path to Betsy Trotwood’s cottage toward hope. For a time then I am with these children once again, and like them I am naïve, innocent.

Dickens’s children, and his grownups too, lack the knowledge which brutalizes life. Lev Shestov says (in his Athens and Jerusalem [Simon & Schuster. 1966]) that man exchanged faith for knowledge in the fall. Dickens tries desperately to recapture vestiges of our prelapsarian state. Of course he would be among the first to admit that we cannot restore Eden; but he seems to say that we can remember what we have lost.

Schiller began to remember, but considered the loss irrevocable. In a famous essay of his he distinguishes between the naïve poet, who is characterized by spontaneity, immediacy and absence of self-consciousness, and the sentimental poet, who subjects his feelings to the scrutiny of the intellect, tests their validity by reference to some external criterion. Naïveté, Schiller says, is the ideal; sentimentalism is what we have. The ideal is unattainable -- for the adult; but the child, who naturally exists in this state of naïveté or innocence, reigns as a supreme symbol for Schiller. Children, he says,

are what we were . . what we should once again become. . . . They are . . . not only the representation of our lost childhood . . . but fill us with a certain melancholy. But they are also representations of our highest fulfillment in the ideal, thus evoking in us a sublime tenderness. We are touched, not because we look down upon the child from the strength of our height and perfection, but rather because we look upward from the limitation of our [adult] condition (Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (Ungar, 1966), pp. 85, 87].

Possessed of Wonder

Tolkien rescues me from Schiller’s "sublime tenderness." Schiller would have us believe that wonder and innocence are irrevocably lost. Tolkien reminds me that this is not so. When I first began reading Tolkien I thought, "Here is a new order of beings, that of the hobbits." Yet, unique species though they be, hobbits are human, and through them Tolkien reminds us of the enduring qualities of the race of man: friendship, fidelity, vision and hope; and of something more: that we are all possessed of wonder, that we have the capacity to dream dreams and envision noble goals, and that in the struggle to realize the vision we may find it true.

"Are fairy-stories for children?" asks Tolkien in the piece cited above. He laments that children read fairy stories as stories while adults read them as Curiosities. He also laments the loss of wonder. But that loss, he says, is neither necessary nor irrevocable, for through Faërie we may experience once again the awe of vision, learn to see through the optics of insight. Faërie is a world, a subcreation, not a genre.

We can best define the subcreative world of Faërie by considering what it is not. The allegorical fairy tale teaches a moral by application to real life. Faërie teaches real life by the experience of the tale. The creator of Faërie does not make application from it; he takes us into it. Oscar Wilde does that in "The Fisherman and His Soul," but fails to do so in "The Selfish Giant." In the former tale Wilde gives us a self-contained entity. We learn the value of the soul from within the story. The latter turns on a lad with a hole in his side and nailprints in his hands, and we need an external referent -- the Gospels -- to determine the extent and limitations of the meaning.

Grimm’s fairy tales hardly qualify as subcreation. The stories and lessons are self-contained, but we are not invited into the fairy-tale world to share the story and experience the lesson. We stand outside this world, deducing -- and deduction is the bane of subcreation. Similarly, despite some attempts to interject racial judgments into them, Joel Chandler Harris’s tales place the reader outside, watching the cunning resourcefulness of animals whose human-like pride is on the line.

A Spell Woven with Words

Tolkien objects also to the grotesquely fantastic -- for instance, to the world of Drayton’s Nymphidia with its walls of spider’s legs and "windows of the eyes of cats." By its very "otherworldliness" the grotesque places limitations upon itself. Nymphidia may show us the grotesque within us, but we do not see ourselves in it. The magic of Faërie is a tool for exploration of the human spirit, its desires and needs. That is, the human spirit is the subject matter of Faërie, and we learn about ourselves by entering into this subcreative world.

"Subcreator" is Tolkien’s term for the true literary artist of Faërie, the one who constructs an alluring secondary world which we believe in so long as we are in it. It is not merely a case, as Coleridge argued, of the reader’s suspending disbelief, but of the artist’s sustaining enchantment. His spell is woven with words. And if we begin to disbelieve, the spell is broken. Yet Tolkien himself proves that even today words in the hands of a literary magician still have the power to enchant. We need only read his books to be convinced.

To make the charm work, the literary artist must provide a solid foundation for his subcreation. Most necessary, Tolkien says, is the power of "giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality" (op. cit., p. 47). Second in importance is language. Tolkien himself had a rare gift for creating words that gave his fairydom substance. William Ready remarks in his Understanding Tolkien (Warner Paperback Library, 1968) that the old mesmerizer used to sing songs in an elfin tongue of his own invention -- or would Tolkien have said "discovery"?). In any case, those who heard the songs understood them, though they did not know the meaning of the words. Tolkien was blessed with the ability of speaking in keener tongues the substance of English.

However, he also manifests more earthly traits and techniques. There is no straining in his art, but a reliance upon the factual, declarative statement. The psychology here is important. We are accepted into his world, not coerced into it. We make our decision by opening the book and reading. Once we have made this commitment we are accepted as longtime friends and fellow travelers. The first line of The Hobbit, for example, reads: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Note, what we understand at once is not that there are holes in the ground peopled by hobbits, but that there are hobbits and that they naturally live in holes in the ground.

We soon discover our similarities with this creature -- the human in the hobbit and the hobbit in the human. When the dwarves begin arriving at Bilbo’s door to avail themselves of his courtesy, we begin to feel an uneasiness that increases as Bilbo’s courtesy is so nearly abused. Abuse is an effective means of creating sympathy for Bilbo. The abuse is innocent enough, and natural enough considering the nature of dwarves, but sympathy arises nonetheless.

Lover of words that he is, Tolkien knows how to make effective use of them. He is a gifted namer of places, people, things, and possesses an ear attuned to matching sound with emotion. The slimy Gollum still sends shivers through me with his long, sinking "s" sounds. These are qualities that many have praised. But not enough has been said about the unpretentiousness and simplicity of Tolkien’s diction. Few flowers of rhetoric bloom in his prose. His choice of words is straightforward and precise, marked by aptness to the emotional and physical pace of his tale.

Fantasy as a Human Right

Thus the world in which Bilbo lives and moves is a real world -- real not in the physical but in the metaphysical" (i.e., the "beyond physical") sense. Bilbo’s meetings with eagles, dragons, elves and wizards are the meetings of man with himself as he responds to danger and turmoil. "Tolkien’s great Contribution to the canon of supernatural literature [is that] no more need there be even, hope of a happy ending. The decision to struggle on when defeat seems inevitable is the true glory of Man": thus William Ready (ibid., p. 57). The struggle for spiritual confirmation and affirmation -- that is Tolkien’s theme. Until the very end of The Hobbit his fellow pilgrims are skeptical about Bilbo, and he must repeatedly try to prove himself worthy of a quest which, at least for him, is not after physical treasure but after spiritual treasure -- for self-identity, friendship, service.

Thus, by simplicity of diction, appropriate naming, skill in evoking mood and emphasis upon concerns which affect every human being, Tolkien has created an accessible world, a world that both invites and directs us.

Art, or artistry, Tolkien holds, is the link between imagination, fantasy and the subcreation. The sub-created world, constructed as it must be by imagination, is necessarily fantastic. But here Tolkien cautions us:

Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being ‘arrested." They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination [op. cit., pp. 47-48].

Fantasy is immensely difficult to achieve, but narrative is the best means of access to it. Drama, argues Tolkien, is hostile to fantasy, since it sets before us a physical reality that limits the mental reality we construct around it. (No doubt we shall soon see hobbits on a cinematic screen, and one can only guess at the pain this would have caused Tolkien.) But the "Elvish craft" of fantasy, properly practiced, produces enchantment, and 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" (ibid., pp. 52-53). Through enchantment, the product of fantasy, we adults begin to retrieve the childlike wonder we had deposited in the litter basket of our mental past. Fantasy, argues Tolkien, "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" (ibid., p. 55). Through enchantment we regain, as Tolkien says, "a clear view" -- we recover the optics of insight into the human spirit and rediscover childlike wonder at the glory of being.

Escape from Prison

Let us return here to the child, to that part of our nature which, Tolkien reminds us, is our nature -- the part of our self which we have merely misplaced. Through fantasy and the engagement in subcreation the reader comes to immense knowledge -- knowledge about the being of man, a knowledge that is also called wisdom. Wisdom is the discovery of self in a world of selves, the discovery of being human in humanity. That there are so many people in the world is a fact of knowledge; that there are other people in the world is an insight of wisdom. One calculates, the other accepts. So with fantasy and with the child. But wisdom does more than accept the presence of other life than our own, more than place the self outside the self and in the context of others: it orders life. Tolkien calls it Desirability -- a kingdom of enchantment whose visitors know that the dragon is not of the same order as a horse or an orc of the same order as an elf.

Wisdom is not naïveté. Naïveté fails to understand life; wisdom copes with, life. There is the great lesson of fantasy for modern man:

The process of growing older is not necessarily allied to growing wickeder, though the two do often happen together. Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey; that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity and even sometimes wisdom [ibid., pp. 44-451.

A student of mine once told me: "I can’t write on Tolkien’s works. I enjoy them too much. Sometimes I need to escape from the present world and simply enjoy the fantasy." He missed the point. Tolkien discusses his art in terms of a contrast -- that between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter. My student fell in the latter camp. For the Prisoner, says Tolkien, dreams of escape from his cell, of his family, of life on another and higher plain. Since we are all prisoners unto ourselves, have all created tight systems for our daily existence and placed bars and limitations upon our spirit, we rightly long for an escape into active engagement with life. But the Deserter flees from engagement. Because the quest to be human is often a difficult and frustrating one that demands the utmost of our mortal wisdom, he chooses the ease of the prison.

This then is what Tolkien’s characters discover: that our need and calling is to escape from the prison and struggle onward toward a goal that becomes precious only in the striving for it.